The Many Ways To Start a Fire Without Matches

 The Many Ways To Start a Fire Without Matches


A few months ago, when the British weather was surprisingly sunny and a blue sky was spotted for the first time in a 118 years (not really, but that’s what it feels like), we decided to have a barbecue in our back yard. Unfortunately, having set up a brand new barbecue we found in the shed of our relatively new home, we suddenly realised that we didn’t have anything to light a fire with. Fortunately we our blessed with a nearby corner shop, so off I trotted to buy some matches to get the charcoal burning white hot. However, it got me thinking; what do you do if you want to have a barbecue and you don’t have anything to start a fire and you can’t pop to the local shop? What do you do if you’re stuck in the wilderness and need to start a fire to survive?

You can hardly compare the two – as one is having a few sausages with your friends while the other is trying not to die – but you still want to accomplish the same outcome and have some bright orange flames licking at the sky. If early man could start a fire to cook meat outside his cave then surely modern man can follow these many ways to start a fire without matches? Let’s hope so!

Before we start, here’s a quick way to start a barbecue without a firelighter (and the method we tried to use first, although the wind scuppered our plans):

  1. Screw some paper into balls (such as that old newspaper you’ve been meaning to throw out for weeks). Make sure they’re nice and tight, before popping them together on to the coal)
  2. Break up some wood into little strips.
  3. Build up the wood around the balls so that it looks pyramid like.
  4. Use a piece of wood and light it on a gas hob. If you don’t have access to a hob then refer to one of the methods below, or sulkily head to the shops.
  5. Quickly carry your stick to the barbecue (the wind is what destroyed our chances here) and proceed to light the balls of paper all the way round your little pyramid.
  6. Sit back and hopefully watch the flames spread and light the coal on fire too. Skip to step 7 if it doesn’t happen.
  7. Curse and repeat, try a different method or go and buy a lighter or matches.

But we’re manlier than that, aren’t we? Here are some other methods to try.

The Ways to start a Fire Without Matches


The Original Hand Friction Method

We’ve all seen it done on films, although it always seems to be done suspiciously quickly. This is also the method that I was taught when I was in the cubs as a kid, although we often ended up simply coming out with sore hands and a pile of twigs on the floor that were unsurprisingly devoid of anything even close to resembling a fire. It does eventually work though, and you’ll get better at it the more you try. As they say – practice makes perfect!

  1. Build a tinder nest. You can make a tinder nest out of anything that is quick to catch fire; dry grass, bark, and leaves – just take a look around.
  2. Get a stick that’s long enough to spin comfortably – about 2 ft – while you’re knelt down. This will be your spindle.
  3. Get a fire board. Basically, get a piece of wood that has a good width and make a small v-shaped notch in it. Make sure your spindle can fit into the notch comfortably.
  4. Place small pieces of bark underneath the notch you created. This bark will catch the embers that are created thanks to the friction between the spindle and fire board.
  5. Start spinning. Slot your spindle into the notch you created, applying pressure on to the board. Start rolling the spindle between your two flat palms, running them quickly down the spindle. You need to keep doing this until you see an ember formed on the fireboard.
  6. Once you have your ember, transfer it to the small piece of bark by tapping the fireboard against it and letting it fall.
  7. Place the bark with the ember onto your tinder nest, before blowing gently on to the nest to create a flame.
  8. Repeat if necessary, and begin adding more pieces of wood to maintain a larger fire.


The Bow Drill Method

This is similar to the hand friction method but is usually more effective and easier on the hands.

  1. Make a tinder nest as before.
  2. Find something to use as a socket, such as a stone or heavy piece of wood. The socket puts pressure on the end of the spindle as you work to rotate it with the bow.
  3. Make a bow. Try to find a flexible piece of wood that has a slight curve to it and is about the length of your arm.
  4. Make the string of the bow. This can be anything that is strong enough to stretch across the bow without snapping. Good examples are shoelaces or thin ropes. Tie the string as tight as possible to each end of the bow handle. If you need to make notches, whittle small notches into the wood at each end in order to act as a groove. Loop the bow string around the spindle once.
  5. Find a piece of wood to use as a base, basically the fire board I mentioned above. Again, cut a v-shaped notch into the centre.
  6. Place your tinder underneath the base.
  7. Place your spindle into the notch on the fireboard and apply pressure with your socket on top of the spindle.
  8. With one hand hold the socket, while the other hand can hold the curved part of the bow. Begin to saw quickly back and forth, which will cause the spindle to spin and create friction at the base.
  9. Eventually an ember will be created, which should come far quicker than the hand method.
  10. Quickly slide the ember on to the tinder nest, and blow as above.


The Fire Plough Method

This one also uses your hands and a spindle.

  1. Make a tinder nest.
  2. Get a fireboard and cut a long groove down the centre of it. This will act as the track for your spindle.
  3. Place the fireboard on the ground with the tinder nest at the end you’ll be rubbing towards.
  4. Place the tip of the spindle into the groove and start rubbing the tip up and down the groove in your fireboard.
  5. The repeated motions – which will get quicker as you get the hang of it – will cause embers to shoot off into the tinder nest. Blow gently on it to encourage a fire to start.


The Flint and Steel Method

Flint and steel


This uses a flint and steel striker with char cloth, and is one of the fastest methods to create embers. I’ll let the two quick videos below describe how it’s done, as then you can see just how fast this method can be. The second video shows you how to make char cloth for use in the method.


The Lens Method

Remember when the character Sid in Toy Story used a magnifying glass to torture Tom Hanks’ Woody character? The lens is focusing a beam of sunlight on a specific spot, and if it’s left for long enough it will heat up and cause a fire. A magnifying glass works wonders in doing this, but you can also use eye glass lenses or binocular lenses too. Add water to the lens and you’ll get a more focused and intense beam of light.

  1. Build a tinder nest.
  2. Get your lens and tilt it toward the sun until a small focused light appears on the tinder nest. Experiment with the angles to find the most focused beam, which totally depends on where the sun is in the sky.
  3. Keep the lens held in place until smoke begins to rise from the tinder. You can blow lightly on it to help nurture the flame.
  4. Start adding pieces of dry wood to the tinder nest to create whatever fire size you desire.

Obviously this method won’t work if the sky is overcast or it’s currently night. Here’s another lens method if you don’t have the above objects available.

You can use a balloon or condom to create a lens too. First fill the balloon or condom with water and tie off the end. Try to make the shape as close to a sphere as possible, without making it too big as that will distort the sunlight’s focal point. Squeeze the balloon until you find a shape that gives you a decent circle of light. As the focal length is shorter than a normal lens you’ll have to hold it close to your tinder; about 1 or 2 inches. Be careful though, as the flames could burst the bubble and end up being doused by the water.

There’s also the ice lens method, which sounds a bit strange as you would never associate ice with actually starting a fire. All you’re going to be doing is fashioning your ice into a lens shape, but to do that you’re going to need clear water that’s devoid of any impurities or you won’t be getting anything out of it. The ice should also be about 2 inches thick. Use a knife to shape it into a lens, but remember that a lens shape remains thicker in the middle while turning narrower the nearer you get to the edges. Give it a quick polish with your hands, before angling your ice lens towards the sun just like I explained with a normal lens. It should focus the light on your tinder nest and eventually cause it to heat up, providing you’ve done it properly of course.


The Batteries Method

By the time you get to this method you’ve probably been doing all the above drastically wrong or you want to try something fun and different. It’s a simple method too, so if you don’t fancy making some ice then this one is a far easier road to travel down.

  1. Again, make your tinder nest.
  2. Get a battery and some steel wool. Any battery voltage will work but 9-volt batteries will ignite quicker.
  3. Stretch the steel wool out so that it’s about 6 inches long and ½ inch wide.
  4. Locate the battery terminals and start rubbing the steel wool against it. This will create a current through the steel wires that make up the wool, which will eventually cause it to heat up and ignite. Once you see the wool begin to glow and burn, gently blow on it to encourage the process along.
  5. Transfer it to the tinder nest. The flame forming on the wool won’t stick around for long, so do it as quick as you can.

If, after trying all these methods, you still can’t get a fire started then you’re in extremely bad weather or there’s just no hope for you and you should get yourself one of our gas or charcoal barbecues, sorry!

Have you got any methods you use to start a fire that I haven’t described here? Let me know in the comments!

First image by JD Handcock on Flickr. Second image by Ian Sutton on Flickr. Both used under a Creative Commons Licence.